"We seldom get into trouble when we speak softly. It is only when we raise our voices that the sparks fly and tiny molehills become great mountains of contention."
- - Gordon B. Hinckley
December 3, 2009
Extreme obedience is no virtue
by Orson Scott Card

It was not very long after the founding of the original Christian Church that the idea of holiness began to attach itself to activities that seem very strange to us today.

Mormonism has no ascetics, no hermits, no monasteries.

Yet it is a common thing, among us mortals, to suppose that if it is good to obey a certain commandment, then it must be even better to hyperobey it -- to make the commandment more stringent than God required.

In ancient times, this led to the supposition that if we are supposed to master the passions of the flesh by occasional fasting, by chastity when unmarried, by abstaining from anger, and so on, then it must be even holier to abstain from all food except the minimum to sustain life, to allow the flesh no pleasure of any kind, or to withdraw from the company of men so that there is no temptation to anger, envy, or any other carnal sin.

The results quickly went to extremes, like hermits living on the tops of stone pillars, exposed to sun by day and cold by night, eating only what one's disciples lifted up in baskets on the ends of sticks.

Apparently these ascetics did not notice the irony that in their hyperobedience to one law, they made obedience to other laws impossible: How could a man alone love his neighbor as himself? Asceticism was, in the end, supremely selfish -- and as utterly focused on the flesh as the practice of the worst hedonist.

Don't imagine that Mormons are immune to the impulse. No doubt you've heard the tales of those who paid eleven percent tithing, so that in case they accidentally miscalculated, they would still be in compliance.

I once knew a couple who practiced what they called a "physical fast," in which they abstained, not just from food and drink, but from any physical contact with any other person during the fast. (This made for complications, since one of them worked as a cashier and had to accept money and make change without touching the customer's hand.)

Such hyperobedience inevitably leads to the sin of pride, I've observed -- you can't help but be a little smug when you know that you tithe more, fast more thoroughly, read scriptures more often, sing hymns more constantly, obey more completely the Word of Wisdom, and, in short, serve God better than those who merely do as commanded and no more.

But in the long run our manner of organizing ourselves makes it hard to take such vain excesses to their extreme.

I can imagine the pillar-top ascetic being told by his bishop that yes, he can be fed from the Church's stores, but he will have to come down off his pillar and do some work in order to earn it.

Ditto with the person who offers to tithe all his possessions -- the bishop will refuse the donation of the house and car, for the practical reason that the family has to have a place to live and a way to get to work and school.

Vows of silence don't work very well when you're called to teach a Primary class.

And the Church already instructs members not to come to the temple fasting: "The temple is hard work, and you need your strength!" (The temple workers also don't need to interrupt their labors to deal with a fainter.)

No doubt many who seek to be more obedient than God requires have the notion that this is what the Lord meant when he said that it is a slothful, unwise servant who has to be compelled in all things (D&C 58:26).

But we need to remember that the Lord immediately followed this with the statement that "men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will, and bring to pass much righteousness" (v. 27).

This has nothing to do with the epicurean notion of "moderation in all things." God has no patience with moderate obedience -- he cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance (Al. 45:16).

Our job is to line ourselves up with the commandments and then, turning our eyes upward and outward, get about our Father's business.

The commandments are meant to free us and empower us, not cripple or torment or deprive us.

We learn self-mastery and maintain good health with the Word of Wisdom; tithing supports the good works of the Church while helping us learn to husband our resources; occasional fasting lets us keep the needs of the body subservient to the rule of the spirit at will.

All of this is so that we can advance many a "good cause," which we choose to support of our own free will.

Focused on my own desires -- even to deny them -- how can I love God with my whole might, mind, and strength? How can I, turned inward, love my neighbor as myself? (Matt. 22:36-40).

That is why the Church helps us organize our lives to turn outward, to make ourselves useful to others.

All sacrifices become easy when we simply forget our selfish concerns and dedicate ourselves to good causes. "My yoke is easy, and my burden is light" (Matt. 11:30.)

In other words, down from your pillars, ye hyperobedient! Get over to the church and help set up chairs.

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About Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender's Game, Ender's Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He also teaches writing and literature at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, and their youngest child, Zina Margaret.

More about Orson Scott Card

Orson Scott Card currently serves as second counselor in the bishopric.

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